Civil War Draft Riot: Orphans caught in middle of racist resistance to fighting in war

MANHATTAN (WABC) -- One of the most violent events ever involving Black New Yorkers happened during the Civil War nearly 160 years ago.

An orphanage for Black children became caught in the middle of racist resistance to fighting in the war.

The Colored Orphans Asylum was located on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets and was a safe haven until the sizzling summer of 1863.

That is when the children became the focus of unspeakable terror.

The riots began July 13 and were extinguished after three days by Union soldiers arriving from the Battle of Gettysburg. But by all accounts, 120 Black people were killed.

"This is a mob of tens of thousands, specifically targeting abolitionists, and very unfortunately specifically targeting African American communities and institutions," Dominique Jean-Louis, Associate Curator at the NY Historical Society

The Civil War Draft Riot was the single most destructive act of violence in American history.

"The riots start on Third Avenue, on what's around 43rd, 45th streets, and then they start to make their way up Fifth Avenue," Jean-Louis said.



The uprising began after the names of eligible men to fight in the Civil War were pulled from a cylinder.

The mood became explosive and the Colored Orphans Asylum was in the path of hostility as mostly Irish immigrants made a path of destruction never witnessed before.

"They wanted blood, they wanted vengeance, they wanted to make a ruckus, and woe to you if you were caught in the crosshairs of that," Jean-Louis said.
The kids, all under 12, escaped just in time.

"All 230 or so children were evacuated, thankfully, but the institution was burnt to the ground," Jean-Louis said.

The orphanage was never replaced and after it was burned down, the Black population in New York City dropped by 20%.

"The events were so extreme that many Black families felt that there was no way that there could be a safe home for them in New York City in their lifetimes," Jean-Louis said.

The only remaining item from the asylum is a bible that was saved by an escaping child.

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